How to Answer Questions

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

(This article appeared in Good Housekeeping Magazine, October 1940)

Children ask magnificent questions. “Why are people? What makes the cat tick? What’s the world’s first name?” Out of the mouths of babes comes, if not wisdom, at least the search for it. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins with wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it also stops there.

The child is a natural question-box. It is not the number of questions he asks, but their character, that distinguishes him from the adult. The grown-ups do not lose the curiosity which seems to be a native human trait; but it certainly deteriorates in quality. Judging from the question-and-answer games that adults play with their radios, they are interested in simple matters of fact. They want to know whether something is so, not why. But children’s questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia. An inquiring infant could stump the whole board of experts on “Information, Please”–or any other quiz program His quiz program would have to be called “Understanding, Please.”

What happens between the nursery and college to turn the flow of questions off, or, rather, into the duller channels of adult curiosity about matters of fact? I have been teaching philosophy for some years. I have tried to get college students to ask themselves questions–the philosophical questions children seem to ask naturally. A mind not agitated by good questions cannot possibly appreciate the significance of even the best answers. It is easy enough to teach the answers parrotwise. But to develop actively inquisitive minds alive with real questions, profound questions–that is another story.

But why should we even have to try to develop such mind, when children are born with them? Somewhere along the line adults must fail somehow to sustain the infant’s curiosity at its original depth. School itself, perhaps, dulls the mind–by the dead weight of rote learning, much of which may be necessary. The failure is probably even more the parents’ fault.

We so often tell the child there is no answer, when one is available, or command him not to ask so many questions. We thinly conceal our irritation when baffled by the apparently unanswerable query. All this discourages the child. He may even get the impression that it is impolite to be too inquisitive. Human inquisitiveness is never killed; but it is soon debased to the sort of questions asked by college students, who, like the adults they are to become, ask only for information, please.

Recently I have become a parent. I have a little boy. And I am beginning to appreciate the difficulty of trying to be a father and a philosopher at the same time. But I still naively suppose that something can be done, at home or in school, to keep infantile wonder alive–to prevent the hard questions children ask giving way to the easy ones on which adults test their prowess.

I have no sure-fire recipe for solving this problem. I am not so brash as to think I can tell you how to answer the profound questions your children put. But I do have a halfway measure to propose. Parents would do a better job if they understood the meaning of their children’s questions, even when they could not answer them. They should be able to distinguish real from unreal questions. Some questions deserve to be answered; others not. They should be able to tell a hard question from a silly one, and not treat everything that perplexes them as foolish.

If parents distinguished among the different kinds of question, and responded accordingly, they might suffer less discomfort and their children might be less discouraged. Aristotle was an expert on this business of classifying questions. I am proposing an Aristotle in every home–a parent who knows what he is being asked.

To begin with, questions are either real or unreal–I would almost say true or false. A false question is one we ask without any desire to know, as, for example, the perfunctory, “How do you do?” Now children frequently ask such questions, partly for want of something better to do, partly because they impishly realize their nuisance value. Their first or second “Why?” may be genuine inquiry; but when every answer immediately evokes another “Why?” they are just plaguing us, not thinking. At some point we must draw the line between real questions and false ones. The false “Why?” should be answered by “Because!” for that, as an answer, is appropriately just as empty as the question

There is also the difference between the “Why?” that questions a statement and the “Why?” that resists a command. We may have reasons for both statement and command, but we need not be equally inclined to explain in both cases. I am in favor of trying to answer every real question that expresses a desire to know; but I am far from sure that it is good policy–progressive educators to the contrary–to explain my reasons every time I give an order. The child who asks “Why?” before obeying may, of course, be inquiring about the goal toward which his action is being directed. When we detect inquiry rather than insubordination, we should explain.

Among real questions, some are easy and some hard, and our greatest difficulty is In telling the hard questions from the silly ones. The worst mistake a parent can make is to regard as good only those queries he can answer easily and to treat all others as vexatious and silly. There is another difficulty. Children can ask questions beyond their own depth. They ask about God or what happens after death–before they can understand the answers to such questions. When we know that the answer to a good question, a hard question, would be beyond them, we can do one of three things: (1) oversimplify the answer, without falsification; (2) promise, and convince them, that they will learn the answer later; or (3) divert their attention to something else. The first solution is, of course, best.

The easiest type of question is about matters of fact, even when the facts are recondite or complicated. The encyclopedia or the almanac is always handy to help the parent satisfy a child’s desire for information. And the sooner children can be trained to use such reference books themselves, the better. Let us call this the “is” question. “Is this so? Is that so? When did it happen? Who did it?”

Next in order of difficulty is the “what” question. “What is it? To what kind does it belong? What are its qualities or attributes?” These “what” questions need seldom stump us, because, though they appear to be the sort of inquiry scientists make, the child is usually after something more obvious. He wants to know the names of things, the conventional labels, which record the classifications of every-day usage. Occasionally, a child does pursue his inquiry beyond the classifying name. Then he is really asking a “why” question–the reason for the classification.

It is the “why” question that most frequently perplexes parents. Some “why” questions are silly. Children make a game of asking such foolish questions as “Why is a mouse when it spins?” But some “why” questions are good–the best questions, though hardest, because most profound. Here Aristotle can be helpful to the parent-turned-philosopher. He distinguished four meanings of “Why?” When anyone asks the reasons for a thing, he wants to know: (1) what purpose it serves; (2) how it came about; (3) out of what materials it is composed; and (4) what sort of thing it is.

We should be able to tell when children are asking one of these real “whys.” Even though children ask profound questions, I suspect that they often do not know the difference between a wise and foolish one. Our first task is to make this discrimination, and we should be able to make it even if we cannot answer the question.

When children persist in asking good “whys,” they push us beyond our depth. But a question we cannot answer may not be unanswerable, or silly. If we cannot answer a good question, we should at least convey to the child our respect for the question, so that he is encouraged to go on asking questions of that sort. We should make every effort to educate ourselves up to such questions. Children’s questions can be taken as an occasion for our own enlightenment. We might even propose to look into the matter together with them, and we ought not to postpone doing so in the hope that they will forget about it. When we confess our limitations, we should be sure that our “humility” is not merely covering up our indolence.

Since I am only recently a philosopher-turned-parent, I cannot speak from much experience when I suggest that understanding children’s questions is halfway toward answering them. I am going to try this way of suffering little children to ask questions without killing their curiosity or losing my own sanity. I am not hoping for too much success, for if the task were that easy, there would really be an Aristotle in every home, and every mother’s son would become a philosopher.

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